Metro-East News

Here’s how some commuters are avoiding construction chaos on the Poplar Street Bridge

How can you avoid the standstill traffic on the Poplar Street Bridge?

Drivers aren't using the Stan Musial Bridge like MoDOT had hoped once the on ramp to the Poplar Street Bridge was closed, but in this BND file video some drivers talk about how the newest St. Louis-area bridge has changed their commute.
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Drivers aren't using the Stan Musial Bridge like MoDOT had hoped once the on ramp to the Poplar Street Bridge was closed, but in this BND file video some drivers talk about how the newest St. Louis-area bridge has changed their commute.

Stan Musial has changed Michele Karraker’s life.

Not the legendary St. Louis Cardinals baseball player. The Mississippi River bridge that’s named after him.

Karraker, 47, often takes the cable-stayed bridge, which opened three years ago, while commuting from her home in Collinsville to her job in downtown St. Louis.

“It definitely gives you more options,” she said. “If I start to see the Poplar Street Bridge backing up where 55 and 64 merge, I just hop on the ‘Stan Span’ and go over that way. I hit more stoplights, but I’d rather stop at a stoplight than sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

That’s in the morning.

In the evening, Karraker, an e-commerce analyst for a life science company, always takes the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge to get home.

“There’s so much construction on the eastbound lane of the Poplar Street Bridge,” she said. “It’s just a standstill (during rush hour).”

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Construction on the Poplar Street bridge continues. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

Illinois, Missouri and the federal government joined forces to fund the $676-million bridge project, mainly to alleviate congestion on the Congressman William L. Clay Sr. Bridge, better known as the Poplar Street Bridge.

Many metro-east residents have changed their driving habits as a result.

The new bridge allows westbound drivers on Interstates 64, 55 and 70 in Illinois to split off on 70 before crossing the river instead of after, bypassing downtown St. Louis.

It’s convenient when I go to the airport. You can avoid the whole Poplar Street Bridge. It can get so congested around the exits by the stadium.

Stephanie Good on the new Musial bridge

“It’s convenient when I go to the airport,” said Stephanie Good, 35, of O’Fallon, an assisted living center director. “You can avoid the whole Poplar Street Bridge. It can get so congested around the exits by the stadium.

“And (the Musial bridge is) a neat bridge to go over. Whenever somebody comes to visit, I’ll say, ‘Do you want to go over the Stan Musial bridge?’ It’s very pretty at night. I take people over just to show it off.”

Making way for construction

The Musial bridge has accomplished its first goal, said Michelle Forneris, area engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation. That was to reduce traffic on the Poplar Street Bridge before the start of major construction.

In 2015, workers resurfaced the bridge’s westbound lanes, rebuilt the Interstate 55 south off ramp and expanded the ramp from one to two lanes.

This year, they’re resurfacing the bridge’s eastbound lanes and preparing to rebuild the Interstate 55 north on ramp and expand it from one to two lanes.

“Before starting any of that, we had to take I-70 traffic off the Poplar Street Bridge because it was carrying the traffic of three major interstates,” Forneris said.

That traffic amounted to 126,250 vehicles a day before the Musial bridge opened in February 2014, according to MoDOT counts.

The agency hasn’t been able to meaningfully count vehicles on the Poplar Street Bridge the past three years because of construction, Forneris said, but officials know traffic is diverting to the Musial bridge.

Before starting (construction), we had to take I-70 traffic off the Poplar Street Bridge because it was carrying the traffic of three major interstates.

Michelle Forneris on the need for a new bridge

An average 31,100 vehicles were crossing the Musial bridge each day shortly after it opened, according to MoDOT counts. That has risen to 53,700 today.

“It takes a lot of traffic away from downtown,” said Jerry Blair, director of transportation planning for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which helps coordinate projects involving federal, state and local agencies.

The council is reserving judgment on exactly how the new bridge will affect long-term traffic patterns because those will likely change when construction is done on the Poplar Street Bridge.

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No traffic during the afternoon on the west bound lanes of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial bridge. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

But Blair can speak about his personal driving habits, which have changed in the past three years.

He used to take the Poplar Street Bridge for the 40-minute commute from his home in rural Edwardsville to his office on the south end of downtown St. Louis. Now he uses the Musial bridge in the morning to avoid construction and works his way south on city streets.

“In the morning, it’s much easier to go north and south downtown than it is in the evening,” he said. “There’s less congestion.”

Officials believe the Musial bridge is also reducing traffic on four other Mississippi River bridges between St. Louis and the metro-east.

Illinois Department of Transportation daily vehicle counts are as follows:

▪  Eads bridge: 8,950 in 2013 to 7,100 in 2014 (most recent figures)

▪  McKinley Bridge: 17,600 in 2013 to 15,100 in 2016

▪  Chain of Rocks Bridge: 52,300 in 2013 to 51,000 in 2015

▪  Martin Luther King Bridge: 22,600 in 2013 to 12,700 in 2014

Embracing the new bridge

The Pilot Travel Center at Illinois 203 and Interstate 55/70 is a popular place for Illinois residents to get gas, coffee or a snack on their way to St. Louis.

On a recent weekday, several customers said the Musial bridge has had a positive effect on their St. Louis travel.

“Before, I would get stuck in traffic,” said David Morales, 36, of Collinsville, who often works construction in St. Louis. “Now I jump on (the Musial bridge), and I don’t have to go downtown and get in traffic. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does that, so it has to make less traffic.”

Alvin Valentine, 39, of Belleville, also takes the Musial bridge when commuting to construction jobs in St. Louis. He and his wife, Tiffany, use it when going to visit family or seeing a Cardinals game.

It’s beautiful. It’s nicely made. It’s smooth. You can tell that they put a lot into the architecture. I think they copied a little off the Alton bridge, but that’s OK.

Alvin Valentine on the new Musial bridge

Alvin Valentine dislikes the Poplar Street Bridge, which he calls “lumpy and bumpy” and hard on his vehicle.

“(The Musial bridge is) beautiful,” he said. “It’s nicely made. It’s smooth. You can tell that they put a lot into the architecture. I think they copied a little off the Alton bridge, but that’s OK.”

Joe Stabinsky, 68, a factory worker from Granite City, has taken the Musial bridge only twice, bypassing downtown St. Louis to get to Lambert airport.

He still uses the Poplar Street Bridge to reach the St. Louis Zoo, Forest Park and Missouri Botanical Garden, and he’s thankful that the Musial bridge is diverting traffic.

“I think it helps with all the construction (on the Poplar Street Bridge),” Stabinsky said. “Just think of all the back-up there’d be with all the people going to Kansas City.”

Pilot customers stopped short of reporting faster commute times from Illinois to St. Louis as a result of the Musial bridge, something that may change after Poplar Street Bridge construction is finished.

Respiratory therapist Tracy Lewis, 46, said the early morning drive from her home in East Alton to her job at a St. Louis hospital took 40 minutes three years ago and takes 40 minutes today.

Event planner Allison Hershberger, 50, gave a similar report on the commute from her home in Edwardsville to her job in Rock Hill, Mo.

“I drive in the city a lot, and it’s no different than it was before,” she said. “When you round that corner (going west on Interstate 55/70) past the dump, there’s always a back-up unless you leave really early in the morning.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

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